Dec 9, 2013

Do suburban shopping malls deserve all the hatred?

Some planners and urban sophisticates view suburban shopping malls with disdain. Yet they offer choice, convenience, walkability and 'buzz'. Oh, and the 90%+ who live in the suburbs like them

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Macquarie Centre, Sydney

You can almost feel the sweet heat of schadenfreude (1) radiating from certain planners every time competition from on-line shopping sees yet another US mall go under.

Some love to hate suburban malls (a.k.a. “hard-top” shopping centres). They’re criticised for promoting car travel, discouraging walkability, destroying traditional strip shopping centres, turning their back on their neighbours, and much more.

Here’s writer and ABC talking head Dom Knight explaining in Fairfax media why he hates shopping centres. He describes them as the retail format that’s destroying main streets.

There has to be a better way of doing retail than building these behemoths, surely? Can we not do a run to the shops without also needing 200 other shops alongside the shop we intended to go to in the first place?

He’s particularly affronted by Sydney’s Macquarie Centre where, he says, it “takes ages to find a park”, there’s a long walk from the car park and it’s hard not to get lost – nothing’s clearly signposted.

Moreover the shops are “bland chains”, the design is deliberately manipulative, and you can’t see out. Looking up you will see an atrium, he says, but “it’s the only view you’ll get of that”.

I haven’t visited the Macquarie Centre although I’m assured by others who have that it’s an an especially hard mall to navigate. But from what I can see dissing of malls is very much a minority preference.

The great bulk of the Australian population seem very partial to them; over the last 50-60 years they’ve comprehensively out-competed the traditional high street as the key destination for variety shopping.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Most malls offer much more choice in terms of the range of goods and services on offer, as well as price points, than competing strip centres.

That’s partly because mall owners actively manage the mix and performance of tenants (they ‘internalise’ externalities) and are usually bigger than traditional centres. It’s also because strip centres have tended to specialise as they’ve lost competitiveness (2).

Another reason for the success of malls is they offer a quality that many urbanists aspire to – they’re supremely walkable environments. They’re dense and there’s plenty of ‘buzz’.

There’s lots of people and plenty of places to shop, eat, play games, watch movies, meet up with friends, and be entertained.

Once they’re inside, users can go about their business without breathing car fumes like they would in a strip centre. They can eat lunch or have a coffee with others without having to shout over the roar of passing buses.

They don’t have to worry about their children getting run over. They can find a sanitary toilet. Larger malls have security; there’re no pubs with drunks; and some have child-minding facilities. They’re air-conditioned too, so they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.

Many retailers and service providers in malls are indeed chain stores as Mr Knight complains, but that’s irrelevant to most shoppers because they only use their nearest mall. From their point of view it doesn’t matter one iota if there are similar stores in other malls; what matters is chains offer advantages in pricing, product range and availability.

Critics complain that malls lack the sort of specialist stores found in some strip centres, but interesting retailers wouldn’t find the latter attractive if competition from malls hadn’t led to cheaper rents. Indeed, malls that lose favour are themselves ultimately likely to offer opportunities for niche retailers.

Malls are popular because they cater to a range of budgets in the low to middling range. More feted strip centres like those in the inner city, on the other hand, often specialise in a limited range of up-market uses, especially restaurants and bars.

I’m not suggesting malls don’t have faults. It’s true they rely almost entirely on car-based transport. But critics seem to implicitly imagine that if we’d never had suburban malls we’d all walk or train to our local strip centres, or even to the CBD.

I’m not convinced things would’ve been that different if malls had some how been stopped. I expect the advantages of scale and the cheapness of car travel mean a limited number of very large strip centres would have evolved to draw on a larger catchment.

The amount of driving would probably be less but not decisively so. An important difference though is traditional strip centres would’ve experienced much more redevelopment than they have and would likely have fewer specialist retailers. And there’d doubtless be complaints about chain stores invading the high street.

There are examples of malls that’ve been integrated successfully into traditional centres. But some, like this new one in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, turn their back on the street and their neighbours.

There are also examples of malls that are poorly serviced by public transport. Compared to Sydney, Melbourne has a relatively large number of major regional malls that were built away from existing public transport infrastructure.

Most of the extant malls are stand-alone operations, but there are more cases where higher density housing is being integrated with new projects or is being built nearby. Given many malls are on large sites, I expect we’ll see more intensive redevelopment in the future.

Like Mr Knight’s problem with navigating around the Macquarie Centre, these are mostly failings that could’ve been addressed by better planning and design; they don’t negate the idea of malls.

Although Mr Knight wonders why we need 200 shops alongside the one we’re going to, people generally prefer large agglomerations, whether in the form of malls or strip centres. They provide the benefits of scale and the advantages of comparison and complementary shopping (3). As Harold Hotelling explained, firms do too.

I get it that many sophisticates have no interest in suburban malls and some actively dislike them (4). But I have no doubt the great majority of Australians like their malls. What we need to do is to find less socially costly ways of travelling to and from them.


  1. There’s an english equivalent for taking pleasure from the misfortune of others but ‘epicaricacy’ isn’t anywhere near as well-known as the loan-word ‘schadenfreude’.
  2. To some degree it’s also because traditional centres have been held back by local residents who make it hard for them to adapt by, e.g., expanding upwards and/or outwards.
  3. See also Malls & strips: what’s the difference? and What’s so bad about regional malls?
  4. In some cases I suspect it might also be disdain for the sort of people who patronise malls.
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15 thoughts on “Do suburban shopping malls deserve all the hatred?

  1. Dylan Nicholson

    #14 – I’m not entirely sure it’s big hard-top malls that suck people out of public spaces. I happened to be out in Caroline Springs this weekend and we were chatting to some of the people who lived there who agreed that it was a bit depressing that you never saw people walking about, despite the efforts developers seem to have gone to make the public spaces attractive. Yes they lack retail/coffee shop options, but there’s no really big hard-top mall in the area, and I do wonder what’s stopping people from setting up cafes/smaller shops throughout the neighbourhood. The residents we spoke just seemed to think it was because the sort of people who chose Caroline springs lived there because they were the sort of people that preferred to stay in their relatively spacious houses and backyards. I’m not sure it’s that simple either, but I have to say one thing that’s always appealed to me about many poorer cities in non-Anglo countries is the way that even in quiet suburban areas there are always people mingling about on the street, in cafes, parks, the footpath, or their own front yards. It just seems more…human.

  2. Smith John

    For me it’s not so much hatred as sorrow when I think of what might have been done better.

    Belconnen (Canberra),3pm on a fine spring Sunday. Inside the hardtop mall, 10,000 people are buzzing to and fro with harassed looks on their faces. To be sure there are plenty of people sitting over coffee and doughnuts, but they don’t sit for long. The place is far too crowded and noisy to be attractive for strolling or relaxing.

    Outside the mall (Westfield’s domain) is the public domain: wide boulevards flanked by ugly office blocks, completely deserted. In the entire town centre there is nowhere you can have a cup of coffee outdoors in a pleasant environment.

    The mall is not a public space – it’s designed and controlled by Westfield to make you shop. Yes, teenagers do hang out in the mall, but that’s because the herd instinct is strong and won’t be denied. It’s hardly a compliment to the design of mall. If the town centre had a pleasant, *active* public space, they would hang out there.

    The fact that the mall is full and the streets are empty is not a recommendation of the mall. It just means that people respond to the choices available to them. In places that do have an attractive public domain that has not been killed by the mall, outcomes are different.

  3. Tom the first and best


    I think you will find that markets are about as old as towns.

  4. Alan Davies

    This comment on the Facebook version of this article is brilliant:

    Gordon J Badham: I wonder if they had the same conversation in some European market town in say 1368 “These markets are a wank I remember when the peasants used to bring their wares door to door “…….

  5. suburbanite

    Shopping malls have their place, but I think comparing the Melbourne ones with shopping malls I have been to in other cities I think Melbourne’s ones are amongst the ugliest, unimaginative, poorly designed ones I have ever been in. There are few public transport links and the they create deserts with wide and exposed roads around them with no foot traffic and no other facilities. The food is also universally awful and overpriced. I go only under duress and I spend the absolute minimum time I have to. The only exception to this is Box Hill which scores on all points.

  6. hk

    One observation is that the malls make a positive contribution to Melbourne Metropolitan social capital by providing climate controlled viewing spots, refugees and meeting opportunities for the elderly and lonely.

  7. Tom the first and best


    Once public transport is up to scratch for shopping centres` links to their catchments, the shopping centres should be maid to charge for parking and probbaly subject to a parking levy.

  8. boscombe

    Did you mention free parking? For some reason people are very influenced by free parking. They avoid Fremantle’s parking meters and prefer Garden City, they avoid Subiaco and go to Claremont Quarter (surely the ugliest new shopping centre in Australia).

    I hate Australian shopping centres, and go to Garden City once a year because it has shops like a really big newsagent with a good stationery section – no other newsagent I know, even in the CBD, can match it. I was recently in Jakarta – strewth, now those are shopping malls, ours really aren’t trying.

  9. matt quaid

    You allude to one of the few good planning points that Sydney has made, the vast majority of its Westfields and the like have been built near to rail lines and the subsequent higher density residential that is starting to sprout around them (think Hurstville, Burwood, Parra, Chatty).

  10. melburnite

    I agree with Noah – if only the hard-top malls (I just call them shopping centres) were more like town centres, with other facilities, high density living and PT integrated. Doncaster shopping town is one – lots of buses, apartment towers sprouting around, an office tower included – and almost integrated with other services, with the library and town hall just down the road (though I doubt anyone walks from on to the other).

    Yes pity that most of Melbourne’s big box centres, especially Chadstone, are only served by small local buses and not tram or train lines. And yes I was shocked when Victoria Gardens was A. proposed as an internalised shopping centre (theres no garden) then B. built with blank walls all round, dominated by signs and cars (at least they were under it). But at least it has a tram line, and I have seen plenty of shoppers at the tram stop.

    And Dylan, yes lots of people like to shop recreationally I believe, though of course they should be doing something like going for a bike ride instead. But shopping centres are well used especially by young people as a place to meet, to see and be seen, which seems to be an essential human need, or at least a cultural one in cities.

  11. Dylan Nicholson

    I’m not sure I’d assume that just because 90% of us use them regularly that we particularly “like” them – I spent over 3 hours at Highpoint on Saturday because it was unquestionably the most convenient place to get most of our Christmas and grocery shopping done, but I’ve never seen visiting such a place as anything more than a necessary chore. I don’t doubt there are such people but it’s hard to imagine anyone going there just because it seemed like a nice/interesting place to spend a few hours.

  12. Noah McDonald

    The internal shopping environment of malls certainly does have advantages; notably climate control, food & drink, multiple price points etc.

    Nearly all of the major faults (in my opinion) are on the outside!

    Busy four lane+ roads bordering a sea of car parking (perhaps dotted with fast food outlets and petrol stations) that are normally unpleasant/busy, followed by massive plain concrete facades that often have no connection with the outside world (barring entrances and advertisements). They are normally car dominated, hostile, ugly abominations!

    IF they can be properly integrated into the urban fabric, diversify uses as to avoid turning the entire block into dead space the moment they close, and be serviced properly by alternative transport modes they will be just fine!

    Thankfully this is increasingly the way in which malls (at least ones that are located in the inner city or near good PT) are now being designed/redeveloped.

  13. Alan Davies

    Nathan #2:

    I use the term mall to denote a “hard top” shopping centre (like this one). In my schema, a big box centre is something else. It’s a collection of very large warehouse-type uses, often furniture and electrical goods retailers, but also including Bunnings and others with lots of floor space in a particular market segment. They’re usually built around a car park (like this one).

  14. Nathan Alexander

    Alan, thanks for yet another informative, well-considered and well-written article.

    Please relabel this article. Suburban malls are places such as Market Street, Box Hill. This article is about hard-top shopping centres, or my preferred term, ‘big box shopping centres’.

    The big box centres do well what they are designed to do – allow private developers to concentrate, own and manage the most profitable land uses in suburbia, retailing. They do well at giving people what they want as consumers, almost always much better than the strip centres. In doing so they have sucked much of the life out of many main streets.

    The big box centres challenge the main streets to be better shopping environments, and the main streets challenge the big-boxes to be better mixed use town centres.

    Our Australian state and local government land use planning systems zone for local retail monopolies, which helps the profitability of the big box centres.

    Those planning systems also allow the centres not to integrate with surrounding urban development, but this is not an intrinsic feature. Likewise, some centres have layouts designed to confuse. However, others are designed to be very legible. They have been hard-top, but this is giving way to creating street-like environments open to the sky. The defining feature is single ownership and management.

    Local government can learn from the ways shopping centre owners manage their big box centres to improve their strip centres, and local government can require big box centres to be better integrated and more mixed-use.

  15. James Steward

    I don’t know any with good bike parking facilities. I’d want a lockable steel cage or similar. There’s no way in hell I’d ride even a half decent bike to a place like Chadstone, and leave it chained to a poll or similar. Parking is a nightmare at times, and the noise and people with their perfumes that I liken to an assault with chemical weapons.

    I’d rather ride to my local green grocer, lean my bike out front, and pop in for a few things. Next door is the butcher. My backpack gets pretty heavy at times. I’d like a cargo bike, but storage is a bit of a problem.

    I’m one of the 10%.

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